Herb to Know: Wintergreen

| December/January 2002

Genus: Gaultheria procumbens
Family: Ericaceae

• Perennial

When you see the word wintergreen, you most likely think of the sweet, spicy taste of Wint-O-green Life Savers or some other breath mint or chewing gum that’s common on grocery store shelves. At one time, the source of their flavor would have been wintergreen or sweet birch (Betula lenta), whose bark and twigs are easier to harvest and yield a volatile oil virtually identical to that of wintergreen. Today, the flavoring in these products—and most of the commercial “wintergreen essential oil” that you can buy—is synthetic, but the wintergreen plant is still highly regarded and used by foragers and herbalists for both food and medicine, and gardeners welcome it to carpet shady landscapes.

Wintergreen (G. procumbens) is native from Newfoundland to Manitoba and south to Georgia. It is hardy from USDA Zone 3 to the cooler parts of Zone 7. Look for the plants in well-drained woodlands and clearings, and in acidic, frequently poor soil in the shade of evergreens such as mountain laurel and rhododendrons.

Wintergreen is a creeper (procumbens means “lying flat”). Inconspicuous stems sprawl on or just below the soil surface. At intervals, erect, mostly naked stems rise 3 to 7 inches above the ground, and a few leathery, oval leaves up to 2 inches long with barely visible rounded teeth are clustered near the top. The leaves are glossy and dark green above, paler and dotted with glands underneath, and they turn red or bronze in the fall. In July and August, white or pink-tinged bell-like flowers about 1/4 inch long hang singly from short stalks in the leaf axils, each “bell” having five small scallops at the open end. The 1/4-inch round scarlet fruits, technically capsules enclosed in a fleshy calyx but popularly known as berries, persist on the plants through the following summer. Thus, it is possible to see a plant bearing this year’s flowers and last year’s fruit at the same time. It’s more typical, though, to see a sparse patch of greenery with neither flowers nor berries.

Growing Wintergreen

Wintergreen makes a lovely, low ground cover for a shady garden of native plants. If you are thinking of using it in place of a conventional turf-grass lawn, be aware that it will not tolerate much foot traffic; however, you won’t have to mow it. Success with wintergreen is most likely if your soil is quite acidic (pH as low as 4.5) and high in organic matter. Seeds are available, but germination is slow. Sow seeds in a mixture of sand and peat and keep the flats or pots in a cold frame until the seedlings emerge.



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